Welcome to the Timber Age

Almost everywhere I turn it appears that wood is going through a renaissance as the product of choice for construction. We are just entering what looks to be the “Timber Age” where wood is now being considered by many architects and engineers as the choice alternative for its sustainability along with the speed (and quality) of construction it offers.

It is now being used as an alternative to steel and concrete due to the various types of engineered timber that can be used in construction. And we’re not talking about cubby houses or wooden shacks, but high rise buildings are on the go with timber as the key building material of choice. From a carbon perspective, designers get little argument against the environmental benefits of engineered timber, such as CLT (Cross Laminated Timber) compared to concrete and steel. Watch how the next 10 – 20 years plays out, we’ll see timber used in ways our generation has never seen before.

Since as long as I can remember I’ve been a fan of timber and wood with its natural feel, however the biggest irony that has always staggered me is how this natural gift mankind has sourced from mother nature seems to be at the brunt of some of the nastiest treatments. When I refer to nasty, I mean bad carcinogenic nasty where some of the worst chemicals have ended end up as timber preservatives like pentachlorophenol (penta or PCP), creosote, copper, zinc, chromium and arsenic. I could rattle of statistics from the EPA and other global bodies that have researched and studied the impacts of these carcinogens to confirm the health hazards to humans, causing birth defects, cancers, nervous system and reproductive damage etc as pages could be written on how bad this stuff really is to both humans and the environment. But what really blows me away now is while we’ve developed technology to create timber that is engineered to enable multi storey construction in lieu of steel or concrete, there has been little progress in the way of smarter (and safer) timber preservatives to align itself with the progress made from innovative timber strengthening technology.

Is it just me or are we seriously overlooking something? A natural material that has been chemically buggered to prevent it breaking down from fungi and insects, which when the timber does eventually finds itself into landfill we get to keep all the chemicals that hang about in the air or in soil contributing to both health and environmental issues. Worse still many of the chemicals in aged timber finds itself in the mulch that lands into our children’s playgrounds, and we scratch our heads about the health epidemics with young children today. Somehow doesn’t seem like a smart deal with what we get out of timber but some would argue it is a fair deal as we force the chemicals in and we end up dealing with them later. This is the raw reality of what we’ve inherited and accepted for far too long.

If we are now entering the “Timber Age” it is time for a circuit breaker to enable timber to remain as intended, i.e. natural! We know of the risks to timber if not treated, there are termites, borers, timber beetles and ant species ready to do serious damage, not to mention the various fungi that can find its way into wood and create havoc with the integrity of timber. But why do we believe nasty hazardous chemicals are the only option to preserve wood? There are other options out there, and effective alternatives, we just need to look beyond the messages from the chemical lobby convincing us that timber needs a chemical cocktail to ensure preservation.

Having spent many years developing non-toxic waterproof termite resistant coatings, I know there are cost effective alternatives that work. 10 years ago I was fortunate to have developed a waterproof termite resistant coating that was commercialised as part of a non-toxic termite barrier for buildings. Unfortunately, the company we made this product for was sold and the new owner reverted the business to using chemical based alternatives which at the time was cheaper, well cheaper in the short term, but not sure if the long term cost had ever been assessed. There are numerous viable alternatives, but often the challenge is getting these concepts into the market while the chemical incumbents remain so cheap. What would be nice to see is pro-active government action to restrict the more toxic forms of preservatives and promote the newer methods (as in the EU) so that these become economic. 

So this brings me to my final point, if timber is going through a renaissance period where increased usage of it (in all forms) will be found in construction, are we going to remain silent and prolong the inevitable environmental and health issues from chemicals in timber? Or does this new “Timber Age” bring us the opportunity to make this the period where the true natural benefits of timber can be sustained and where non-hazardous timber treatments become the norm, so us humans and the planet can sleep comfortably knowing the future is going to be a better place for it? Let’s hope it’s the latter.

p.s. you can check out our 100% natural timber preservative for new timber and treatment for wet/dry rot.